The venerable British television series Doctor Who has been discussed to death. At least eleven times! (That’s a regeneration joke, by the way. Sadly not a very good one.) But did you know that we’re lucky to have early video of the Doctor at all? How about all the wacky merchandising tie-ins? Or that there’s a difference between The Doctor and Dr. Who? If you knew all these things, then congratulations, you’re a Doctor Who superfan and we bid good day to you, sir! Or, you know, madam. Let’s just move on. Prepare to be surprised as we tell you about six things you (probably) didn’t know about Doctor Who!
First Doctor William Hartnell with Dalek toys made by Louis Marx and Company.
The television series Doctor Who premiered on the BBC on November 23rd, 1963. The first episode drew 4.4 million viewers, with an average of 6 million across the first series. (A British “series” is equivalent to a season or story arc in the U.S.) This surged to over 10 million viewers in the second series. And what caused it? That’s right, those clunky, exterminating cyborgs, the Daleks. Viewers simply loved the Daleks. Because obviously.
And then merchandise came flooding in. There were Dalek novels, Dalek comic books, Dalek coloring books, Dalek candy, Dalek toys, Dalek puzzles, Dalek kites, Dalek clothing, Dalek costumes. (You get the idea.) Pop bands wrote songs about Daleks. There is a photo of Beatle John Lennon posing with a Dalek, in a strange crossover between Beatlemania and Dalekmania. It was one of the earliest successful media tie-ins, and provided a merchandising model for future television shows and movies.
Dalekmania was cut short by yet another mania. This time it was Batmania, inspired by the campy Adam West Batman that debuted in 1966. Because obviously.
2: Dr. Who
Peter Cushing as Dr. Who.
As Dalekmania began to build, Amicus Productions purchased the rights to make three Doctor Who films from the BBC and writer Terry Nation. The BBC should have said no, but apparently they like rivers of money flowing right into their massive bank vaults. The first film was Dr. Who and the Daleks, a 1965 film based on the 1963 television episode The Daleks. Critical reception was mostly negative, though the film performed well at the box office. Next was Daleks—Invasion Earth: 2150 A.D. in 1966, based on the 1964 episode The Dalek Invasion of Earth. It performed worse than the first film, and the third film, based on the 1965 episode The Chase, was never made. (As mentioned above, Dalekmania had turned to Batmania.)
The Dr. Who of the films was a significant departure from the Doctor of the television series. First off, he was named Dr. Who. As in, his last name was actually “Who," and he was…a doctor inventor? It’s not terribly clear. Dr. Who was played by Peter Cushing, at that time known for playing Sherlock Holmes and a number of iconic horror roles, such as Victor Frankenstein. (Of course, Cushing would later be known for playing Grand Moff Tarkin in the 1977 film Star Wars, the guy who blew up Alderaan.) The character was portrayed as more gentle and juvenile than William Hartnell. Keep in mind that at this time, the Doctor Who tropes of regeneration and multiple Doctors had not yet been written. Cushing essentially played a Doctor who wasn’t the Doctor, and for this reason the Dalek films are not considered part of Doctor Who canon.
3: Limited Regenerations
The Tenth Doctor David Tennant regenerates to the Eleventh Matt Smith, from The End of Time (2009-2010).
As a Time Lord, the Doctor is able to regenerate a new body (and personality) upon his death. In the 1976 serial The Deadly Assassin, writer Robert Holmes mentioned a limit of twelve regenerations, or thirteen incarnations of the Doctor. Subsequent writers have been kind of consistent about that number. The Eleventh Doctor explained that two additional regenerations had been used—briefly by the War Doctor in between the Eighth and Ninth Doctors, and in a failed regeneration by the Tenth Doctor—so he was, in fact, the last doctor. His companion, Clara, convinced the Time Lords to allow another regeneration, which gets us to the (current) Twelfth Doctor. Unless the writers choose to disrupt their continuity, we’re now watching the final Doctor. This is the end, folks.
But who are we kidding? The whole regeneration trope didn’t exist until William Hartnell left the show and had to be written out. In other words, the idea of a First Doctor didn’t even exist during the First Doctor! We’re talking about a Time Lord here. The writers may not understand basic arithmetic, but they’ll write themselves an exit.
4: Plot Holes
Just a small number of Doctor Who episodes released on DVD.
Speaking of the writers, they have difficult jobs. Just one part is maintaining continuity from one Doctor to another, often picking up where other writers have left off. As we approach a hundred writers and a thousand episodes, let’s face it, mistakes or inconsistencies happen.
In the 1976 serial The Brain of Morbius, a number of faces are briefly shown onscreen. It is implied that they are incarnations of the Doctor prior to the First Doctor. (The faces were played by members of the production crew. There’s probably a joke here, but we’re not entirely sure what it is.) Similarly, the 1986 serial “The Trial of a Time Lord” suggests that the Valeyard would be a composite of later Doctors. So what’s the problem? Well, at that point, they were early enough in the series that adding some doctors at the beginning and end gave the Doctor an air of mystery. Now that we’re at the Twelfth Doctor actually shown onscreen, it creates another plot hole that the writers need to fill. And then there’s the question of the Doctor’s humanity. Both the 1996 film Doctor Who: The Movie and 2005 book Doctor Who: The Legend Continues refer to the Doctor as half human, which has proven to be controversial among Doctor Who fandom.
So how did they fill the plot holes? Later writers have had to insist that the First Doctor was, in fact, the first Doctor, and have mostly remained silent on the “composite of the Doctors” issue. As for being half human, current showrunner Steven Moffat has since stated that the Doctor was lying, although the issue isn’t exactly settled.
Sarah Jane Smith (played by Elisabeth Sladen) and K-9 (played by a space toaster).
Doctor Who was practically made to be spinoff-able. (Is that a word?) You’ve got multiple Doctors, even more Companions, enemies galore, different times and dimensions...there’s, like, a lot of stuff going on.
Perhaps the most popular spinoff, Torchwood aired for four series from 2006 through 2011. Starting on BBC Three, the series moved to BBC Two and then BBC One as it gained in popularity, and finally partnered with American Starz for its final season. (That’s like getting upgraded to Princess, and then Queen. And then you’re President of the United States for some reason.) Torchwood was broadcast across much of the world and inspired its own tie-in media: comics, games, even audio dramas. Because obviously.
But the television spinoffs didn’t start with Torchwood. Companions Sarah Jane Smith and robotic dog K-9 have long been fan favorites. A live action pilot featuring the two, K-9 and Company, was aired on BBC1 as a Christmas special in 1981. It attracted over eight million viewers, more than the average Doctor Who episode at the time, but it was doomed by turnover at the BBC. The Children’s BBC had more success with The Sarah Jane Adventures, with four seasons and three specials spanning from 2007 to 2011. A live/computer-animated series, K-9, was produced by British Channel 5, Disney UK, and Australian Network Ten, and aired for a series in 2010.
There were also a number of parody charity spinoffs. Dimensions in Time (1993) included all of the surviving Doctors. Doctor Who and the Curse of the Fatal Death (1999) starred Rowan Atkinson, star of BBC sitcoms Blackadder and Mr. Bean. Yes, Mr. Bean was in a Doctor Who parody. It’s probably on YouTube...
6: Missing Episodes
Many kinds of tape.
97 of the 813 episodes of the series (at current count) are missing. (The office calculator says that’s almost 12%.) But saying they're “missing” is only half the story.
Until 1978, the BBC had no formal process for archiving their recordings of Doctor Who. The videotape from original broadcasts was often transferred to 16mm film, usually to be sent abroad. The tapes and films were typically held by two different departments, and each believed that the other would archive its holdings. Space was at a premium, so tapes and films were pretty much stored wherever there was room. In addition, the BBC had little incentive to retain any recordings at all: actors’ contracts placed limitations on how often their recorded performances could be broadcast on television. As in the early film industry, many actors came from backgrounds in the theatre where they were quite literally paid by the performance. These stipulations removed the possibility that an actor could be paid for only a single performance (when it was recorded) which the BBC could then broadcast indefinitely. This all created a situation where the BBC saw little economic sense in archiving anything, had no room for the episodes it already had, and its informal processes guaranteed that tapes and film would be wiped or destroyed accidentally, if not on purpose.
So we’re talking about 97 of 813, right? Not exactly. 253 master videotapes were wiped or destroyed. (That’s 31%, again thanks to the office calculator.) This was the entirety of the first six series, both the First and Second Doctors. Many of those videotapes were transferred to film, of course. A few were returned from abroad, primarily from Nigeria. Others were found in random places, stuffed in a cupboard at the BBC—yes, that happened—or taken home by various employees.
Doctor Who Costumes
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Did you know all of these facts? Did any of them surprise you? Or are you a superfan, still hanging around after we wished you a good day? (It’s all right, we love everyone here, even the cranky Twelfth Doctor.) Let us know in the comments below! And be sure to check out our complete selection of Doctor Who costumes, which will let you trick-or-treat as your favorite Doctor! Allons-y!